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Education Interrupted, or Learning from Disruption?

Continuing with an impromptu switch to online learning is not a desirable “new normal”. However, the many lessons learned during the past year should not be lost but lead to a better “new normal”. Many of these recent experiences will precipitate progress in teaching and learning. We just need to manage the process of infusing these into higher education well.

Reflecting on the past year, I believe there is a lot to be learned from all these involuntary experiences. Established practices and processes undoubtedly were interrupted, triggering the intuitive response of aiming at returning to a prior ‘normal’. Feeling insecure on less than familiar ground, we want to regain the well-established comfort zone trusted by everyone before the pandemic impacted education.

Higher education in many places around the world “went online” rapidly, rightly or wrongly taking the requisite digital equipment and skills for granted. Most people understood the necessity, and instructors as well as students coped to (very) variable degrees. Few, though, had anticipated the need for studying online to be drawn out that long, or to recur over again during such a lengthy period. This made the desire to eventually “get back to normal” stronger, confirming the previous state of affairs as preferable.

Without doubt, continuing with an impromptu switch to online learning is not a desirable “new normal”. However, the many lessons learned during the past year should not be lost but lead to a better “new normal”. Without and beyond the pressure exacted by pandemic conditions, many of these recent experiences will precipitate progress in teaching and learning. We just need to manage the process of infusing these into higher education well.

Turning experiences into opportunities

The sudden switch to online learning impacted academic communities worldwide in different ways: Internet capacity stretched beyond its limitations, a lack of experience with suitable technology platforms, some of these used well beyond their designs and load limits, a shortage of client devices as well as digital media content, the list goes on — but above all, serious deficiencies in individuals’ competences for managing online interaction for learning.

Recognizing these and other shortcomings, a very commendable initiative was launched addressing “Resiliency in GIScience Education”. Perceived by many as a first aid station offering guidance through a crisis, its initiators were looking beyond: “How can our experiences become opportunities for rethinking and revisioning our practices and perspectives?”

This is where interruption of our ongoing practice should be understood as a long-term valuable disruption leading to innovation and a sea change in concepts and the practice of higher education. Now is an excellent time to step back for a few moments and consider which changes we want to keep, which experiences should lead to different approaches and which fundamental re-conceptualizations will be helpful in the future of higher education.

Let’s look at a few of these opportunities:

The insight of learning for most people being a social activity is not new. Having everyone spending time in a front-facing classroom is not really a suitable setting for social interaction, though. This is demonstrated by the expectation to listen quietly, giving way to the practice of communicating off-topic via personal devices. We therefore could opt more frequently to alternate listening with discussion time in breakout groups. Managing these well in a large lecture hall creates huge overhead, while done smoothly on online platforms.

Essentially, plain lectures are most easily moved online “as is” and are least valuable as such. Educators already earlier having broken up their lectures into smaller units alternating inputs with interaction, individual activities and reflections in groups benefitted substantially from these structural changes now contributing to the success of online learning. Those teachers investing long nights into the recording of lectures run the risk of being considered an always-on streaming channel to be consumed right before exam week — with limited long-term success.

Traditional classes typically are considered synchronous, co-located events. Successfully “going online” certainly requires more than bridging a distance with telecommunication. Or, for that matter, un-scheduling learning by offering recordings. Online learning requires a re-inventing of many established frameworks and processes, with the ongoing mass experiment allowing an assessment and evaluation of approaches on an unprecedented scale.

From a purely personal perspective, and without any serious empirical validation, I have collected a few notes I am certain to consider during next semesters, online or on-site:

  • Keep lecturing to shorter, focused discussions of clearly defined topics;
  • Foster learning, teach less;
  • Increase the use of flipped classroom scenarios;
  • Facilitate interaction with and among students;
  • Re-socialize learning by stimulating discourse;
  • Leverage digital tools for individual problem-based learning; and
  • Focus on transferable competences over knowledge and skills.

None of these thoughts actually are specific for online learning, and most are obvious anyways. Still, the push to reset one’s teaching practice originated from enforced online-only interaction and exposing the drawbacks of traditional formats.

Online learning requires a re-inventing of many established frameworks and processes, with the ongoing mass experiment allowing an assessment and evaluation of approaches on an unprecedented scale

Identifying advantages of online learning

Overall, I have grown my appreciation of advantages of online learning enough to retain practices in my own new normal as a teacher. A few courses simply will remain online as this allows me to flexibly invite contributions from international speakers, and at the same time reach out to a far-flung audience. Some units will continue to leverage the flexible interaction and collaboration facilities of digital tools — online communication can work well within a classroom, too. Students will be led to use online collaboration tools beyond feedback and simple quizzes in otherwise traditional classroom settings, simply because these simultaneously give a voice to those who otherwise only could speak up individually, one at a time.

I had considered myself an accomplished online instructor, primarily due to decades of experience in the UNIGIS distance learning program. Why, then, so many additional insights and practices? UNIGIS is a program directed at in-service professionals, offering continuing education to mature learners with a clear sense of purpose, mostly in a synchronous format. While there is common ground in digital technologies, motivating and guiding undergraduate learners is a different task — I am sure educational professionals can explain this competently.

A related observation is that online learning suddenly is considered on equal footing with traditional formats. Online program degrees frequently were looked down upon as second tier qualifications, regardless of full accreditation. With on-site programs having had to switch to online, there will be little choice than to allow for equivalence.

An interesting domain where it would be unwise to fully roll back is student mobility, as implemented in the European Erasmus program. Clearly, major benefits result from social interaction across nationalities and cultures, and these hopefully will re-emerge in the future. Beyond that, virtually attending courses at host institutions and thus collecting international academic experience as well as credits will hopefully serve as an integral component of any graduate’s experience.

Focusing on disruptive innovation

As stated above, organizational and social factors are the make-or-break of online learning. Still, there is one major technology factor having experienced steep growth during virtualization of courses — Cloud-based digital infrastructures. This progress is not expected to go away, enhancing the accessibility of learning infrastructures and the full suite of geospatial (and other) software tools, and accelerating the demise of computer classrooms. Cloud-centric instruction obviously requires decent Internet connectivity. Beyond that, though, it has the potential to lower some digital divides.

Thus, the current interruption induces and enforces changes. Many of these are either overdue, or have a net positive effect outside of pandemic contexts. Moving from reactive situational fixing to proactively managing change is hard to achieve within a stressed system but offers substantial opportunistic benefits.

Refocusing from interrupted education toward disruptive innovation in education is a chance we must not let pass.

Author Bio

Josef Strobl heads the Department of Geoinformatics at the University of Salzburg and is a full member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. As a GIScience educator, he co-founded the worldwide UNIGIS online program and is engaged with the design and implementation of geospatial learning pathways from schools to postdoc experiences. Josef always looks forward to meeting friends and colleagues at the annual GI Forum symposia in Salzburg.

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